A Meditation on Ash Wednesday and Lent
Matthew 6: 1-6 Matthew 6: 16-21
Looking for something to hold on to as Christians begin a vitally important liturgical season tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, February 18, 2015, I am reminded of a sermon that I published two years ago on this website. Ash Wednesday signals the beginning of the 40-day liturgical observance of the Passion of Jesus, leading up to his crucifixion. Two years do not seem too long ago, but as I gaze at the present landscape on which our faith continues to strive to appropriate itself, I couldn't add anything new to this meditation that I wrote then. Its words remain as relevant to me now as it was two years ago. So I am reprinting it here, in the hope that I can make a little contribution to your own lenten journey in this season.
“So what is thing called Lent anyway?” was the title of an Ash Wednesday video vignette from the CNN online edition, where a man, narrates the meaning of Lent. After a cursory overview about the meaning of Lent among Christians, the video immediately faded out into a few pedestrian interviews, asking people what they are going to giving up for Lent – one said fat burgers, the others said meat, another said his Segway scooter and start walking, and another young lady said give up a lazy lifestyle and start exercising. Then the narrator eventually – or perhaps inevitably - made the connection between Fat Tuesday and Lent, saying that the revelry, festivals, the eating and carousing that happens on Fat Tuesday in New Orleans, is a cultural American practice of feeding up all our the worldly appetites before the season of fasting begins – like a bear fattening up with food before hibernating in winter! Needless to say, the premise already makes a mockery of Lent.
This is why many critiques of prevailing attitudes toward Lent in Christian America raise doubts whether there is a serious appreciation of the meaning of self-denial as a Lenten discipline in our culture. In the view of many, Christians in America are remaking Lent as a type of spiritual self-help whose effectiveness is measured by how well it entertains us and affirms what we already believe…seasonal sacrifices, if observed at all, tend to be superfluous. For Catholics, “abstaining” can now consist of sumptuous fish dinners on Fridays. Some Protestants (especially us Baptists!) conveniently avoid sacrifice or fasting altogether – if no one can earn divine favor, as we say in Baptist (and Reformed) tradition, why bother? Still others bring a take-it-or-leave-it attitude, marked by promises to exercise daily or do without sweets for a few weeks. In all these, true self-deprivation is rare.
We live in a culture of constant self-gratification. It is the norm for Americans of any degree of privilege. The sad result of being in a culture of constant gratification of the physical senses is that we lose any sense of mystery and wonder. Gratification dulls that imagination and healthy spirituality loses out to the pursuit of the ultimate experience of sating our physical impulses. In our culture, gratification is much easier to achieve than the slow pace of character formation.
I must confess that I myself have been personally experiencing a subtle and lingering sense of spiritual restlessness and unease every time I would realize - in between the many preoccupations of my regional work day in and day out - that we are now in the season of Lent. A part of me was yearning for a more meaningful expression of this most important, but neglected, season of the Christian liturgical year. I also believe that part of the sense of unease that I have been feeling is the fact that I, too, find myself in the midst of a wider social culture that has essentially trivialized the meaning of Lent. The practice of “fasting”, for example, that has been traditionally connected to Lent has now - to the wider society – become a mere occasion to display self-indulgent piety by giving up superfluous “luxuries” like chocolate, red meat, Facebook, Twitter or similar forms of favorite indulgences.
In preparing for this sermon I had to reengage what Lent means for me; or, better yet, what it should mean to me. Since Lent is a season of spiritual refection on the meaning of our discipleship, it led me to reflect and reexamine the narrative of the ministry of Jesus, beginning at his baptism in Luke 3, through his first ever recorded words in the gospels in Luke 4, where after he leaves his 40 days of trials in the wilderness spiritually triumphant, he comes to the synagogue to preach. That rediscovery of a fresh meaning also came by way of the necessity of reengaging the etymology of the word “Lent” itself.
It turns out that the English word, Lent, has really no direct etymological relationship with the essence and meaning that the liturgical season evokes. It was only in the late Middle Ages, when sermons began to be delivered in the vernacular instead of the prevailing Latin, that the English word lent was adopted. The word itself simply means, (the season of) “spring” (as it is in German, lenz, and in Dutch, lente), and derives from its Germanic root for long, because in the spring season the days obviously lengthen!
The translation of the original Greek, tessarakoste, is actually more enlightening which means the “fortieth” day before Easter. This word is preserved in other languages, especially of the Romance, Slavic and Celtic languages. In Spanish, for example, the word cuaresma is closest to the theological meaning of the concept.
According to the Synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus spent forty days fasting in the desert after his baptism and before the beginning of his public ministry. Thus, Lent is described as being forty days long. The narrative has obvious theological symmetry with the forty days of wandering in the desert of the Israelites following their liberation from slavery in Egypt. The gospels report that in the wilderness Jesus faced, endured and surmounted temptation by Satan.
Seen in its proper linguistic context, the meaning of Lent becomes starkly real for me. It is the period of the liturgical year from Ash Wednesday to Easter. Far more than mere “fasting” from one’s favorite indulgences, the traditional purpose of Lent is the ritual preparation and spiritual rededication of the believer and the church to their purpose in the world, and not merely a spiritually sanctioned occasion for counterfeit repentance and self-justification. And so we hear God speaking through the prophet Amos, in chapter 5: 21-24, proclaiming:
"I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” (NRSV)
The prophet Isaiah sounds the same concern of God in chapter 58: 5-7:
"Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (NRSV)
We cannot see God unless we go through the destruction of the false-self. The false-self has many faces – self-love, self-pity, self-hatred, self-justification, self-righteousness, self-glorification, self-pride – to name a few. The false self leads us away from our authenticity before God, because it deceives us to think that we are being faithful – self-pride, whose other name by the way is false humility, is our biggest stumbling block in our spiritual journey of transformation.
In the epic science fiction movie, “Avatar”, we are brought into the mid-22nd century, when humans are mining a precious mineral on Pandora, a lush habitable moon of a giant planet in a distant star system. The expansion of the mining colony threatens the continued existence of a local tribe of Na'vi – a humanoid species indigenous to Pandora. The film's title refers to a genetically engineered Na'vi body with the mind of a remotely located human, and is used to interact with the natives of Pandora. In common computer language, an Avatar is an artificial image that represents and is manipulated by a computer user.
Jesus’ teachings to his disciples on authentic piety reflect God’s abiding concern for our eternal destiny. We cannot see God unless we scrape off the barnacles of the false-self that grow as encrustations on the surface of our souls. We cannot merely be Avatar disciples, a manipulated image of who we really are. God wants to claim our hearts – not only its cardiac cells, muscles and tissue, but the deep waters of the heart. God is a jealous God in this way. This is why the first commandment is such – “there shall be no other Gods before me.” Jesus summarizes this eternal concern of God for us when he said, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
False piety cannot masquerade as faithfulness. In fact, false piety only exposes one’s true motives and inner self, because a spiritual charlatan’s words never cohere with his/her actions.
Everybody who knows what a tanning booth is understands that anyone who goes in there comes out with a tan (a more glamorous word for a sunburn!). When you expose yourself to ultraviolet rays, your skin will burn. It’s a cause and effect thing. And so if we understand sanctification as the growth in divine grace, we also need to understand that that growth comes from the commitment to hold our lives to the way of Jesus. We grow in divine grace because when we consistently dwell in the presence of God, we cannot remain unchanged, untransformed. We cannot be in God’s presence and remain the same!
If the church, and her disciples, is the continuing presence of Christ in the world, then our journey here on earth must mirror the journey of Jesus - from baptism to its culmination on Holy Week. Luke Chapters 3 and 4 are fascinating starting points of Jesus journey. In those chapters, we see a powerful and purposeful order of Jesus’ journey which is critical to the self consciousness and identity of the church. It begins in repentance and baptism, which then thrusts us into necessary preparation for ministry in the practice of engaging the powers and principalities of the world. It is in this crucible that we clarify and claim our mission, and leads us into proclamation and ministry.
There is no shortcut away from the wilderness for the disciple of Jesus!
We are all spiritually poor, eternally needy, a need that can only be filled by the Bread of Life. When Holy Week comes, the church internalizes and proclaims her destiny in Christ and embraces all the stations in that journey. Jesus called his disciples to the work of changing the world, to be instruments of God's redemptive plan for the universe. The season of Lent reminds us that we are all mortals, earthen vessels. Yet God has found it fitting to yet use us in this glorious task, to which we remain faithful only if we hold fast to the way of Jesus. May the season of Lent prepare us in a faithful way for this celebration and renewal of our mission in the world.
Avatar image above was created by marcotruiz and is made available under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license. The image can be found on Flickr.